"Rain is fine. Cloudy, sunny, cold, we can shoot in anything.
'Cause we'll never be able to match snow."
This is what filmmakers Jon Cryer and Richard Schenkman were told as they geared up for the first day of photography on their independent film, "Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God... Be Back by Five."
The writing/producing team had hoped to begin shooting the picture in mid-March of 1997, so that their principle location, Coney Island, would still have its "mothballed-for-winter" look about it. But when various casting and other production issues forced them to push back to April 1, they knew with certainty that if there was one thing they could count on, at least snow would not present a problem.
"Total blizzard. Nothing on the news about it, but I woke up at 5am and saw it coming down," recalls Schenkman. "There were no cover sets, because most of the film is exteriors, and many of the interiors hadn't even been cleared yet by the time we started shooting. So we had to go to Coney and figure something out."
The entire cast and crew sat in the "holding area" (a vacant restaurant undergoing re-construction on the famed Boardwalk) watching the storm blanket the area, and trying to keep warm. The First AD-who had designed the entire shooting schedule-was stuck in traffic in New Jersey and unavailable for advice. So finally, at 8:30am, Schenkman decided to send most of the crew home and try to shoot the scenes which take place inside the NYC Subway-a move which would wreak havoc on the delicate schedule, but at least allow the day to be salvaged.
And then the snow stopped. "But it didn't just stop," Cryer emphasizes. "The temperature jumped twenty degrees, and suddenly it was all melting as quickly as it had come down." The Gods had smiled! And then they sprung their next April Fool's joke: the sky became so clear and blue that the filmmakers spent the entire day chasing the sun around, fighting hard shadows and gorgeous weather on what was supposed to be a dark, gray, miserable day on Coney Island in the middle of winter.
would always be an issue for this production. "We knew going in that our weather
needs were specific," says Schenkman. "Too specific, really, for our schedule,
but in our story we had most of the action taking place on a mid-winter day, with
flashbacks to spring and summer. Good luck in NY, where, as my Dad always said, 'If you
don't like the weather, wait five minutes.'"
Not that Cryer and Schenkman expected an easy time of it. Back when Jon first presented Richard with fourteen pages of dialogue and descriptions he had hoped to shape into a short film, he was unsure they would add up to anything. These writings cobbled together what Cryer remembered of two seminal experiences with a childhood buddy: an oddly eventful wintry visit to the eerily off-season Coney Island, and a disturbing search for a missing friend.
"My friend David called me one day and said, 'Remember Raymond?'", Cryer recalls. "I just heard a rumor that he's living in Central Park.' I said, 'You mean he's homeless?' And he said, 'Homeless, nuts, the whole nine yards.' So we went looking for him, never expecting to find him, of course, but the first place we looked, we came across a kind of commune of homeless people.
"I saw this woman standing near a pile of clothes, and I asked her if she'd seen Raymond. She said, 'Yeah, I've seen that asshole,' and she whacked the pile of clothes. It stood up-and it was him. We were shattered. We had undertaken this whole thing as a lark; we thought there was no way this handsome, smart kid could have lost it, and yet here he was."
"We didn't know what to do, he didn't seem to want our help, so in the end all we could do was give him some money and leave."
Upon reading the material, Schenkman turned to Cryer and said, "You know, there's a feature here." The two immediately began work on the script, incorporating more stories and memories from their own lives to enrich the true tale. The result is an unusually personal work.
Their first film together, The Pompatus of Love (BMG Independents, 1996), had presented difficulties of its own. "Any time you're trying to make a movie with a low budget, on location, there are going to be challenges which go beyond anything you can predict," Cryer explains. For example, there are the unique challenges of filming on Coney Island.
Fabled in song and story, Coney Island was once a showplace of New York. It was where the world came to see amazing live shows, staggering light spectaculars, and ride on such landmark amusements as the Steeplechase, the Thunderbolt, and the Parachute Jump. But its glory days are long behind it, and now only Astroland, Deno's Wonderwheel, and the Cyclone preside over a rinky-dink assortment of carnival castoffs and a rapidly deteriorating boardwalk.
Schenkman and Cryer had initially scouted Coney Island the previous winter while they were still writing the script, to get a feel for the place, take pictures, and see who they could meet. "It was freezing, rainy, and gray," Cryer remembers. "It was perfect." "Not that we could have shot in those conditions, but it looked great," Schenkman offers. But when they returned the following winter to try and secure locations, they found out that the great "abandoned look" they'd admired was due to the place actually being abandoned. "The ride owners go to Florida for the winter, and they don't even think about getting up and going again 'til the beginning of March," Schenkman explains. "So we knew we couldn't shoot until at least then. But then we found out the bad news..."
"It turns out that Easter weekend is their second biggest weekend of the year.
There was no way anybody was going to let us shoot on those three days," says Cryer. "So we were in a position where we had to wait until April, then take open businesses and restore them to their mid-winter, closed-down look. The owners, needless to say, were thrilled." Luckily for the production, Coney is mainly a weekend business from April 'til June, so as long as the production stuck to schooldays, the shooting went fine. Mostly.
"The smaller carny types-whom we weren't using as locations, in fact, we wanted them closed in the background-got wind of the production and starting coming in on weekdays, opening up, and blasting music, just to mess us up," Cryer recalls. "There weren't any customers, of course. It was freezing, all the kids were in school, tourists were afraid. But they knew we couldn't record sound with the music blaring, and they could extort a few hundred dollars from us. We were forced to pay, but eventually we did figure out that if we had to give them money to be quiet, we could at least buy games with it, so on breaks the crew could have water balloon races, play skeeball, or enjoy the video arcade."
For the most part, Coney's entrepreneurs, from Dick Zigun, owner of the real freak show (Sideshows by the Seashore), to Ronny Gerero's bumper cars, to the Boutsikaris brothers (of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park) "were very friendly, and welcomed us with open arms," proclaims Schenkman. "They understood we were a low-budget film, and worked with us on schedule and location fees."
Not that there weren't other problems. Between the time of the location scout and the start of production, the NYC Parks Department started erecting a chain-link fence around the boardwalk. Cryer explains, "For decades, anybody could go under the boardwalk and walk around, take a pee, or build a little shelter. In fact, years ago there were even businesses under there. Now, literally days before we start shooting, they start building this huge fence." A quick call to the Mayor's office led to a friendly Parks Dept. official, who, in recognition of a small donation to the Department, agreed to halt construction of the fence at the film's location for a few days.
One key Coney Island landmark restaurant agreed to let the production use the location, then reneged only two days before photography after finally reading the script, "because they didn't like the idea that we showed homeless people on Coney Island," Schenkman remembers ruefully. "But as with most problems like that, the resulting solution is a vast improvement over the original idea. We ended up shooting in Lucy's, which, while not 'famous', is right on the boardwalk and has a great Coney look."
Casting the film was equally challenging, with several well-known actors committing to the project and then leaving abruptly, for various reasons. "Most agents and managers don't seem to want their clients doing low-budget films," Cryer says. "And some of the content of this film scared them. One terrific actor basically chickened out after discussing the role with his agent." Schenkman remembers, "I literally had one manager tell me she would rather her client stay in LA, just to be available for possible studio meetings, than come to New York for five weeks to play the lead in our movie. It was amazing to me." However, this desperation led to the discovery of the talented Rick Stear (Stan). "He had never been exposed on celluloid before. Not a commercial, not a TV appearance, not a home movie, nothing. He might have been a vampire for all we knew," Cryer says. Stear had been out of school for only a few years, and much of the time he had hoped to spend in New York City had actually been spent out of town doing plays in prestigious regional theatres. But casting director Mark Saks had seen him for a Warner Brothers TV series, remembered him, and brought him in to read for a small part.
"He came to read for JoJo, I think, and then we had him read the pawnbroker, too. He was great, and I thought it would be terrific to have him in the movie," Schenkman recalls. "But Jon said, 'Would you mind coming back to read for Stan?', and I instantly saw what he meant."
Cryer goes on: "He said, 'sure.' He hadn't read the whole script, only the parts for JoJo and the pawnbroker, so he had no idea Stan was the lead. But he came back a couple of days later, and nailed it. We couldn't believe it, so we made him come back and do even more scenes, and he nailed those, too."
"The thing is," Schenkman explains, "that it was a ridiculous risk. He'd never been on a film set. Beyond acting skills, there are all kinds of technical things, like hitting your marks, finding your light, matching your action, that most actors only get with years of experience. Mark told us we were crazy if we hired him." "We held off on the decision as long as we could, but then Rick got hired for a show at Lincoln Center, and if we didn't book him, we were going to lose him," says Cryer. "Richard and I had a long talk about the financial risk, and about why we were making this movie, and we decided to go with our hearts and hire the guy we felt could do the job."
Schenkman states emphatically: "Rick never let us down. He kept surprising us with his technical facility as well as his remarkable talent and consistency. Also, he's a great guy. And not too hard on the eyes, I understand from the female crew members. A few months after production, we had to have actors come in for looping [re-recording some dialogue]. Jon said, 'If he nails this, I'm gonna scream.' Of course Rick was a natural at that, too. We're very, very proud of our discovery."
The rest of the cast consisted of Tony winners, other finely trained New York actors, and one recent arrival to the city who gave the producers a little scare on her first day. As Cryer tells it:
"We had cast Ione Skye-a wonderful actress-to play Gabby. Just a few days after she moved to NY, she came in to read, and auditioned beautifully. Her agent made the deal, and we called to tell him when and where she needed to be for her first day of shooting. But he called me late the night before, saying, basically, 'We don't know where she is.' She was still in the middle of moving, and he couldn't reach her to give her the call time. He phoned her old place, even her mom--but no one knew where she was. She'd had a phone installed at her new place, but stunningly, nobody knew the number. He assured us that he had left messages and that she'd get back to him.
"So there we are the next morning, in the middle of Rockaway Beach, with a hundred extras-who were working for free-and no leading lady. I'm on the cell phone, pacing back and forth, calling everybody everywhere, and her agent is saying to me, 'Look, if you have to hire another actress, I understand.' He understands!?! But where are we supposed to get somebody? She's already an hour late and we're supposed to be shooting.
"We call other agents and finally line up the availability of the actress who was our second choice, and we're just about to hire her-I've got two calls going at once at this point-when a guy walks by with no ear. I'm yelling at some agent in the middle of Rockaway Beach and a guy walks by with absolutely no ear. And Richard turns to me and says, 'I wept that I had no cell phone, and then I met a man who had no ear.' As I paused to take that in, there came a shout: 'We've got her!' Turns out that a resourceful production coordinator had taken it upon herself to check at Ione's brother's apartment, and sure enough, there she was, sleeping on the sofa. She had no idea we were looking for her."
The coordinator drove the actress to location, she slipped on her wardrobe, and the production continued. "In the end, we actually only lost about two and half hours out of the day," Schenkman says. "It could have been a catastrophe and wasn't. Plus, I got to see Jon be the 'bad cop' for the first time in our partnership. It was worth it just for that."
Another location seemingly fraught with danger was the New York City Subway system. "I take the subway all the time and had no qualms about shooting there," explains Schenkman. "But the transit authority was going through a phase where they claimed they weren't giving anybody permits to shoot, so it came down to re-writing those scenes, or stealing the shots. And I'll be damned if we were going to lose our subway scenes."
But, as Cryer remembers, "Some of the crew members had had a previous bad experience in the subway, or had heard of one. Of course, it's illegal to shoot in the subway without a permit. So as we got closer to the shooting day, everybody was scared witless. The AD was worried the police would shut us down, the DP was worried they would confiscate the camera. But Richard wouldn't back off."
"I just felt nothing would happen," Schenkman says. "New York police understand the difference between Justice and the letter of the law. They're out to stop crime, not filmmakers. I learned that on Pompatus."
The first of the three subway scenes went smoothly enough, although a "helpful" citizen nearly wrecked a key shot. A scar-faced derelict had apparently taken a shine to the filmmakers, followed them from car to car, and got into every shot, watching them carefully and commenting-even when the camera was rolling.
Schenkman had a talk with him: "I explained that while I loved having him in the shot, he absolutely couldn't talk, and he couldn't look in the camera. He understood, and from that point on, not only did he not talk in a take, but helped draw the eyeline of other passengers would were tempted to look in the camera. He even kept them from talking. And afterward he wouldn't even take any money; he was just so happy to be in the film."
Later, shooting the dialogue on the open-air subway platform, the line producer noticed a cop approaching. The DP ducked behind a pillar with the camera, the sound man ran up the stairs, and everyone else stood around looking as nonchalant as possible.
"Hey, you. Over there!" the cop called out.
"Can I help you, officer?" Schenkman answered.
"You know, there's no train coming down that line. There's construction. You're gonna have to move over to track five to catch a train."
"Thank you, officer. Thanks a lot."
The crew got back to work, and Schenkman smugly delivered an "I told you so." The rest of the subway shooting went without a hitch, and in fact took less time than had been planned.
In the end, Cryer and Schenkman found it a rewarding, enjoyable shoot. "I've done quite a few films, and I have to say that this was my favorite experience yet," Cryer offers. "I agree," says Schenkman. "We had a great crew, an amazing cast, remarkable locations, and even the weather worked out."
"That's true," Cryer enthuses. "In the end, we had pretty much exactly the kind of weather we needed almost every day of filming. And by pushing back, an amazing thing happened: the trees in Manhattan started blossoming, giving us the beautiful Spring backdrop we wanted for the flashback sequence that opens the film. A gorgeous, sunny day, with the birds singing and the flowers blooming. Just like I remember it."